Last year I got to share a truly fantastic debut novel with you all. Fred Van Lente’s Ten Dead Comedians, a retelling of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, but with a group of comedians being trapped on an island and slowly being murdered. It was a whole lot of fun, and got me very interested in Van Lente’s career as a novelist, especially since I’ve already been quite a fan of his work in comics. And, I was pleasantly surprised to see that we were getting a follow-up to Ten Dead Comedians extremely quickly with his newest book, the Con Artist. Especially when I found out what it was about. Because this is a book that really sold me by it’s logline, the fact that Van Lente has proven himself to be a really effective novelist just sweetened the deal. It’s a murder mystery set at a comic con, a setting that Van Lente has intimate knowledge of. It seemed like a very obvious plot for someone in the comic book industry to put together, taking their inside knowledge of conventions, along with the frustrations that come along with them, and create a story that lampoons it all. Which would have been fun. But, much to my delight, Van Lente took that great concept, and added so many other narrative elements that I love, creating a novel that absolutely blew me away.
The Con Artist is the story of a relatively famous comic book artist named Mike Mason as he arrives at the king of all pop-culture gatherings, San Diego Comic Con. Mike used to be a pretty prolific artist on indie books, even working on a big tier superhero book at one of the three biggest comic book companies, but his life has recently fallen apart. He’s gotten divorced, he’s no longer inspired to create, and his career has kind of faltered. So, Mike’s solution to these issues is to become something of a drifter, having no permanent residence and just travelling around the country, from convention to convention, and meting out an existence from commissioned sketches. But, now he’s travelling to San Diego Comic Con, the biggest con in the nation, where he’s going to be giving a lifetime achievement award to his idol and mentor, a famous artist called Ben K. Unfortunately, as soon as he arrives at the convention he hears word that Ben has died, putting the entire convention in a depressing light. Mike tries to make the best of the con though, taking some commissions and hanging out with friends that he only sees once a year while avoiding his ex-wife, when something troubling happens. The man who edited his big superhero book, who is also the man who broke up his marriage, is found dead outside the con on the first night. And, since Mike had has a drunken altercation with him earlier that night, he’s the prime suspect.
Mike then finds himself in the incredibly unnerving position of being the chief suspect for a murder case, all while trying to get through what is turning out to be a hellacious Con. He still goes through the motions of being at a convention, being interviewed, drawing sketches, being on panels, and dealing with a blowhard writer who is currently dating his ex-wife, all while trying to find a way to clear his name. He then starts spending all of his downtime becoming an amateur private eye, and with the help of a friend of his called Dirt Bag, he starts traversing San Diego in search of people who can clear him. And, in the process, he ends up finding himself embroiled in a conspiracy that he struggles to understand. There are Neo-Nazis, religious fanatics, stolen art, blackmarket deals, a shadowy private protection agency, intimidation from the heads of one of the most powerful comic book companies in the world, and even a few more murders. But, thanks to some luck, perseverance, and some well-earned competency, Mike is able to figure everything out, and save his own skin. He’s even able to deliver all of his commissioned sketches.
I had a truly wonderful time with this book. I don’t really want to get into the nitty gritty of the plot, especially with how things end up shaking out, because I think that Ven Lente does a great job at crafting a story full of legitimate mystery and it’ll be best to experience it as blindly as possible. Ten Dead Comedians had a great mystery in it, but Van Lente has really topped himself with this story, giving us a fantastic little detective story with real twists, but a solution that also makes perfect sense. I’ve talked about it before on the site, but I really and truly love the trope of the accidental detective, and Mike Mason falls into that category wonderfully, giving us a guy who has no business solving a murder mystery, but who does so with aplomb, all while reacting in terrified panic, as any of us would. Van Lente is a really fun writer, filling the book with clever ideas, legitimate suspense, and a ton of inside information into the world of comics.
There are several characters and organization in the book that are pretty clearly allegories for real life comics creators and companies, and it’s just really interesting to get an insiders look into something that we all take for granted. The Con lifestyle doesn’t seem very glamorous, and this book takes a very interesting look at the sensory overload and grueling conditions of the Con. Even with the murder taken out of it. And, perhaps most importantly, the book takes a real stand against how problematic the big comic book companies are. Ben K doesn’t really seem to be referencing any specific comic book creator, which makes his story so much more tragic, because it could be applied to countless creators. Ben K created an incredibly profitable superhero, but it was “work for hire,” so he didn’t have any right to the character he created, and all the money it earned, leaving him in a position where he died near destitute. The book talks about an organization that’s clearly referencing real life charity Hero Initiative, which provides healthcare of older comic book creators who created the characters and stories that we all know and love, and who were more than likely screwed over by Marvel and DC. It’s a tragic reality of the medium, and I think it’s important that we discuss it, especially when superheroes have become some of the biggest forms of entertainment in the world, all while the people who created the characters are forgotten and dying without the respect or help they need and deserve. So, I highly recommend checking out Fred Van Lente’s the Con Artist, and if you’re so inclined, I also recommend checking out the Hero Initiative. It’s the least we can do.
The Con Artist was written by Fred Van Lente and published by Quirk Books, 2018.
Categories: Page Turners